The Earliest Study on Retrieval Practice

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Research Retrieval Practice Experiment


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What can teachers learn from one of the earliest studies on retrieval practice?

This post references one of the first academic studies on retrieval practice (the testing effect), by Edwina E. Abbott in 1909 for her masters degree.

Other than Hermann Ebbinghaus’ research on memory (forgetting and spacing), Abbott is a teacher’s first port of call to research on retrieval practice and how we learn. I’ve taken a closer look at her original 62-page manuscript, ‘On The Analysis Of The Factor Of Recall In The Learning Process’ to see if there is anything teachers can take away.

The Influence of Recall

The aim of Abbott’s research was to determine the nature of the influence of recall and the conditions under which it could be used most favourably. For example, a definite length of time given in which to learn material, and whether recall should be spaced or should follow immediately.

The opportunity for recall, during or immediately after the learning process, is of great benefit to the individual, University of Illinois (1908).

The ‘Hit Method’

Abbott cites Ebiinghaus’s research in 1897, The association firmness in its dependence on the distribution of the repetitions. The term ‘treffermethode’ is used. In English, this translates as ‘hit method’.

“Ebbinghaus found that sixty-eight successive repetitions of memory material have a less profitable effect than thirty-eight repetitions divided over three days.”

All in all, Abbott presents a series of research to support recall in connection with the learning process.

On page 8 of the original journal paper, Abbott sets out her methodology and then goes on to explain how the experiments were conducted: “The purpose of the experiment is to discover the factor or group of factors to which the influence of the recall period might be traced; the subjects were given the time for recall without directions as to how it should be used and through introspection, and an attempt was made to discover the factors present.”

Prior to Abbott’s research, there had not been “any definite attempt to determine the individual type of the subjects and to use this knowledge in the interpretation of the numerical results.”

This paper is a great starting point for teachers who are serious about cognitive science and for those who are curious about the origins of retrieval practice research.


  1. Recall is always an aid in the learning process.
  2. When recall comes after the [imprint] of the material, immediate recall is of more value than delayed recall and its value decreases as the delay increases in length.
  3. That recall is of greater value when it is interspersed with [imprint].
  4. Localization is one of the factors which go to make recall an aid to memory, but that the relative importance of this factor is determined by individual type.
  5. The relative value of recall and [imprint] depends on individual type; that for the individual of strong ‘ inner-speech ‘ tendency who depends little on immediate reimaging. [This final conclusion suggests the importance of developing a student’s schema.]

The key question for teachers: How do these findings compare with the research on retrieval practice, 100 years later?

Download the paper: Abbott, Retrieval Practice, 1909. You can also find the original script here.


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